Ep. 4: ‘It’s too late for my son’
After Joseph Chernach took his own life in 2012, he was found to have suffered brain damage from playing football. Since then, his mother, Debbie Pyka, has worked to educate others on the risks of football and encourage brain donations to further medical research.
Debbie shares her story in Ep. 4, touching on the drastic changes in Joseph’s personality after high school, her helplessness over his refusal to accept help, and what drives her to promote awareness and research today.
We also hear from Joseph’s older brother Tyler, who gives us insight into the kind of football player and person Joseph was, and on the potential impact some of the drills they endured in youth football might have had.
Hear the story by clicking the player above, or if you prefer to read, scroll down to the script below.
Episode 4 music credits (in order of appearance):
(All music edited for time purposes)
Episode 4: ‘It’s too late for my son’
Debbie Pyka: “What needs to change as a society I think is, we don’t need to put tackle football up on a pedestal. It’s just a game and it causes brain damage, and people are still cheering this on. I don’t understand it. … I see it plain as day, now. But it’s too late for my son.”
Episode 4: “It’s too late for my son”
It was all over the news in January … Tyler Hilinski, a bright and well-liked student at Washington State University — who was also likely to become the Cougars’ starting quarterback in the fall — had committed suicide, shooting himself in the head with an AR-15-style rifle.
Across the country, on a farm in Wisconsin, Debbie Pyka saw the story. She had assigned herself the unpleasant task of scanning the news for these kind of items — athletes in contact sports who died young — it could be homicide, suicide, overdose, even an accident — any reason, really — and to immediately reach out to the victim’s family. In cases like this, time is of the essence.
Debbie Pyka: “You don’t know how they’re going to react. You have to call them right away and they’re not in any kind of shape to, I guess, sometimes especially if it’s the mother, it’s really hard to get through to the families because they’re grieving and it’s so recently and just hours away. Those are kind of hard phone calls to make.”
But Debbie didn’t hesitate. She called the Washington medical examiner and explained her mission. The next day, with the blessing of the family and in coordination with the Mayo Clinic, it was arranged for Tyler’s brain to be donated for medical research.
It’s a difficult thing to do — making phone calls like that. But there’s a reason Debbie has taken it on — for her, it’s personal.
Debbie Pyka: “I think I connect with them because I’ve been there. I’ve lost a son, I know what it’s like to lose a son and I think that they’re glad they can talk to someone and relate to me because we both have something in common.”
It was six years ago that Debbie Pyka would find herself in the same tragic position as the Hilinski family.
It was June 6, 2012. Debbie couldn’t find her son, Joseph, and she was in a panic. Joseph had been prone to mood swings as he entered his twenties. He’d have these bouts of rage, storm out of the house and just … walk. He might head a few miles down the road to his cousin’s house, or just wander for a while to blow off steam. Always though, he’d eventually call his mom, or one of his two brothers, or a friend, to talk. He’d calm down, and he’d come home.
But that night he didn’t call. No one had heard from him. After an hour or two, Debbie called Joseph’s cell phone — no answer. She didn’t hear from him that night.
The next morning Debbie considered filing a missing person’s report. She called family members. She called Joseph’s work. Nobody had seen him. Debbie and her daughter Nicole went driving around the area, searching for him. She felt a growing sense of dread — a mother’s intuition, perhaps. In her heart, she knew something terrible had happened.
Debbie Pyka: “I thought I was going to find him hanging in the trees on our property somewhere along the driveway. We drove around the countryside looking for him. I was just looking in the trees thinking, ‘am I gonna find him hanging in the tree?’ And I drove to his cousin’s. I drove around the country because he was only few miles down the road. I couldn’t find him and I came back and I don’t know what to do.”
It was about that time that Debbie’s husband — Joseph’s stepfather — came home. He went to the shed to get something and immediately can rushing out, ordering Debbie to call 911. He didn’t say why, but Debbie was terrified, because, in that moment she realized the shed was the one place on the farm that she hadn’t searched the night before.
Debbie Pyka: “And I just ran down the stairs, my husband tried to hold me back and I ran downstairs. He didn’t say anything that he was dead — he didn’t tell me that. And I ran straight to the shed, I don’t know why, and I got to the door and there my son is in a sitting position on the floor and he’s dead, he’s got a rope around his neck. And he had been dead from the night before.”
Joseph was about a month shy of his 26th birthday.
Joseph Chernach was like a lot of kids growing up in rural Michigan. He loved comedy movies and could recite lines on cue. He was an honor student and involved in drama. And he and his two brothers — Tyler, a couple years older, and Seth, just a year younger, played just about any sport you could imagine, from golf to baseball, basketball to wrestling, and of course football.
Joseph was about 11 when Debbie and his father, Jeffrey Chernach, divorced, and the boys initially moved with Debbie from their home on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, back to Wisconsin.
But when Debbie moved them back to her family farm so she could care for her terminally ill father, the boys found they weren’t comfortable at the school. Eventually all three would go back to Michigan, to a town of about 1,500 named Crystal Falls, to live with their father.
There, Joseph and his brothers would play on the Forest Park High School football team, helping the Trojans to multiple state tournament berths.
Debbie Pyka: “They were all really good at sports. Joseph was senior athlete MVP of wrestling and football. He had so many medals they wouldn’t all fit on his letter jacket. I have it in a glass case. It’s really heavy.”
Joseph was a running back on offense — — elusive, a scat back. On defense he was a linebacker and a ferocious one at that.
Tyler Chernach: “He was more of a slasher on offense, but on defense, playing in the middle of the field there he’d get dirty. I don’t know, he kind of played with a little bit of a disregard as far as just sacrificing his own body, probably moreso than I did.”
That’s the voice of Tyler Chernach, Joseph’s older brother.
Tyler Chernach: “He was a tough son of a bitch. He wasn’t big, he was you know 5–9, 150 pounds, but he liked to hit people. I think if you asked the guys that played with him, they would probably tell you he was the best player on the field most of the time.”
Even though she wasn’t with him, Debbie had no reason to worry about Joseph. All her boys were together, looking after each other. And the boys — especially Joseph — were close with their high school football coach, a man named Bill Santilli — a Forest Park legend himself who also happened to work with their father Jeffrey at the Michigan Department of Transportation. Santilli was like a second father to Joseph, Debbie says. In retrospect, she thinks it was Joseph’s participation in youth football that was the larger problem.
Debbie Pyka: “Now that I look back on it and I’ve heard some of the stories, I felt like he was more safe in playing high school than he was even in the youth football league because I found out later that the coach that they had was actually teaching the kids the nutcracker drill. And I’d never knew that until these last couple years. And of course they played a lot of football and that’s where I think most of the damage came. Because youth, when his brain was developing. Of course none of us knew this then.”
Tyler agrees with his mom and he remembers the nutcracker drill in particular. Now there are different variations of this drill out there, sometimes it’s called the nutcracker, sometimes it’s called the Oklahoma drill, sometimes it’s a one-on-one thing, and sometimes there are multiple players on each side. But no matter what you call it, all of the versions basically boil down to sort of a manhood test — two players doing everything they can to… well … I’ll let Tyler explain …
Tyler Chernach: “… the kids are laying on their backs, heads facing each other, spread about 10 yards apart. And a coach will blow a whistle and they have to run full speed at each other. That’s one of the drills we would do in youth football. We used to call it the nutcracker drill but you’d see — you can look up videos, you know, basically, yeah, just trying to knock the shit out of each other basically.”
“As far as comparing that to youth football practice to high school, we never did drills in high school like that, to where one of the main, not objectives, but results would be hurting somebody. Our high school coach was pretty good about that. I mean as far as doing crazy drills in high school I would never say that we did anything like that. We did the normal stuff, just you know scrimmages, hitting the sled, offense, defense, second team, first team, nothing crazy in high school. But that one drill we did in youth football, I will remember that one. I remember making somebody cry after I did it.”
Hindsight is a torturous thing. Anyone can look back on moments from their past and wonder what could have been if they had just noticed this, or acted on that. Sometimes it just not so obvious. With Tyler Hilinski, for instance, family members, teammates, his college coach Mike Leach — all of them say they didn’t see any signs that he was dealing with depression.
With Joseph Chernach, though, it was a different story. After graduating from Forest Park, his football career behind him, Joseph enrolled at Central Michigan University, and he hoped to eventually become a physical therapist. But signs of trouble started popping up almost immediately. Joseph’s personality and behavior were changing.
Debbie Pyka: “I know he was having symptoms right after graduation because I’ve talked to some of his friends and they kind of told me some of the things that was going on with him. The partying and the drinking and just some things he would say that were out of character for him.”
Once a good student, Joseph’s grades tanked. Once a people person, Joseph became a hermit. He stopped going to class and eventually left college. He bounced around, back to Crystal Springs. Sometimes living with his dad, sometimes with his mom, sometimes with friends.
The situation worsened over time. At one point, Joseph told Debbie “look at me, I’m hopeless. There’s nothing for me.” He told a cousin he didn’t know how much longer he could go on, and mentioned shooting himself in the head. Debbie and Jeffrey both called the police at different times over fears that Joseph would hurt himself.
Debbie Pyka: “His own dad even went to the sheriff’s department and told the sheriff that he was afraid that he was going to find his son hanging one day. That’s what he said to the sheriff. His dad didn’t find him hanging, I did.”
Debbie describes the last two years of Joseph’s life as a time of living in fear. It was like following a toddler around, keeping tabs on him, making sure he was safe and OK. His depression worsened and took hold. She made doctor’s appointments for him but that only angered him and he refused to go. She felt helpless and didn’t know what to do for him. She felt that maybe if he had a job he would start feeling better about himself. But that didn’t help either.
There were two moments that, looking back, really stand out to Debbie as turning points, where she realized that she might not be able to save her son. In one of them, she looked Joseph in the eye and told him, bluntly, “you’re not going to die before me.” Joseph responded with a blank stare — never said a word.
The other moment came in May of 2012. Joseph was sitting on the couch watching breaking news coverage on television. The story? Legendary NFL linebacker Junior Seau had committed suicide, shocking the sports world.
Debbie Pyka: “And I asked him ‘what is going on with all these NFL players dying?’ And he didn’t answer me. He just kept watching the TV. He was watching that and then a month later, my son’s dead.”
It was Tyler who suggested Debbie send Joseph’s brain in for testing.
When she asked why, he asked if she had seen the recent stories about NFL players dying, including Seau. She said that she had. “Well,” Tyler said, “they have a brain disease.”
After that Debbie researched. She read up on all the symptoms players had struggled with. The more she read, the more convinced she was that Joseph had brain damage and CTE, even though he had never been diagnosed with a sports-related concussion. It turns out she was right.
Six years later, the guilt still gnaws at Debbie. She feels she should have protected her children better and asks herself why she didn’t read up on the topic sooner. Why didn’t she research? Why didn’t anybody explain the risks? Why wasn’t she warned?
Debbie Pyka: “I should never have let him play, never let any of them play. Joseph, from the very first impact that he had, he never had a chance. His fate was sealed. And that’s the truth. We just didn’t realize it. That’s really hard for me to swallow. My kid started with these impact sports at the age of 11 and it was gonna kill him down the road, and we had no clue.”
For those left behind, there is always guilt, always questions about what could have been done differently. It just comes with the territory. And you don’t really move on from something like this. You just realize those feelings and those questions are going to be part of your life from now on.
Tyler Chernach: “It’s, uh, it’s kind of one of those things that you just, you live with you know? You’ll always have questions, you’ll always wonder why, you’ll always have regrets, about things you coulda did and didn’t do. It’s gotten a little bit easier, but, it’s not easy at all. Especially with Joseph being the type of person he was. He had a lot of friends and one of those guys you’d never hear anybody talk bad about. Never had a drug problem. He just he just turned into a different person, and we all tried to get him, to seek help, and he just had his own stubborn ways, and I don’t know, it doesn’t really ever get easier. Not for me anyway.”
Debbie keeps close tabs on Tyler and Seth, hoping that they’re OK, worrying that they’re not. She finds it difficult to distinguish between depression potentially related to their football careers, and simply sadness in dealing with their brother’s death. It’s impossible for her to tell the difference. Tyler understands, but he says his knowledge gives him a big advantage.
Tyler Chernach: “I’ve suffered depression but I mean I could relate that to a lot of things. But nothing as far as, nothing even close to, as far as, suicide or anything like that. … I think when you’re having issues, one of the main things that gets a lot of people through is knowing that they’re not the only one.”
And so Debbie waits and watches. Meanwhile always keeping eye on the news, making calls when she needs to, asking for brain donations to further advance research. Spreading the word. And she urges parents to guide their kids toward sports other than football. The risks, in her mind, are just not worth it.
Debbie Pyka: “As a parent you don’t want to be a caregiver to your child. It’s the most miserable feeling knowing that you’re going to lose your kid and you have to try to take care of them, when the children should be taking care of their parents. But now this is all turning around. … I just wish parents would listen and quit denying the science and quit telling us football is safer than ever. Football is not safe and it never has been. … The link has been proven, and they need to accept it.”
Tyler, who went through the nutcracker drill, who played football with his brother and watched the changes in him later take hold, agrees with his mom.
Tyler Chernach: “I definitely wouldn’t be letting my kids play tackle football. Maybe in high school. Really I haven’t thought about that. I always kinda felt that after my brother died it was a blessing for me to have three girls so I didn’t have to, more than not have to make that choice, you know what I mean?
“You can learn too many of the basics of football playing flag football. A lot of the you know, there really isn’t any point in it. There’s so many NFL and college players that didn’t even play in junior high. Some of them barely even played in high school. There’s no point. You can learn the basic fundamentals of football without playing tackle.”
And what about the good parts of football? Molding boys into men, teaching teamwork and toughness and other great intangible qualities?
Debbie Pyka: “Of course they tell you how that builds character. You should’ve seen my son’s character the last four or five years of his life. That wasn’t the Joseph that we knew.”
There are lessons to be learned from the story of Joseph Chernach … the story of Tyler Hilinski … the story of Junior Seau … and the stories of far too many other football players. Debbie Pyka has made it her mission to make sure everybody hears them, knows about the risks, and knows how serious the issue is.
Tyler Chernach: “She basically quit her job to focus on bringing awareness. … I know she’s talked to families after loved ones have died and called them, or had someone call them. I did that one time a few months ago and didn’t get a very good response back. For her to and her friends to keep doing that, it’s not an easy thing to do you know. I couldn’t imagine doing that all the time. She went all in. She went all in, for sure, and I have a lot of respect for that.”
Thank you for listening to the Razed Sports Podcast. To learn more about brain donation, search Child Athlete Advocates on Facebook or go to FacesofCTE.com … or you can call 800–891–1342 for more information.
This episode was written and produced by me, Bob Harkins. The music is from Kai Engel, Chris Zabriskie and Sergey Cheremisinov. The theme song comes from DL Sounds.
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